Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

This fiery orange treat is a shot of Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) from Sunday's camera tour of the garden, and it's yet another of the early summer flowers to announce the full-bore onset of the blazing sun and sweltering heat typical of late June and July. As its name of course suggests, this member of the Milkweed family is a high value destination for not only butterflies and bees who come to feed on the nectar, but also wasps, beetles and even ants, who help with its rather peculiar pollination scheme.

Pollination in this genus is accomplished in an unusual manner, as the pollen is grouped into complex structures called pollinia (or "pollen sacs"), rather than being individual grains, as is typical for plant pollen. The flower petals are smooth and rigid, and the feet of visiting insects (predominantly large wasps, such as spider wasps, which visit the plants for nectar) slip into notches in the flowers, where the sticky bases of the pollinia attach to the feet, pulling the pollen sacs free when the pollinator flies off. Bees, including honey bees only gather nectar from milkweed flowers, and are generally not effective pollinators despite the frequency of visitation. (From the Wikipedia link above.)

I have to admit that until a few years ago, I had no idea what Asclepias was, and it wasn't something I was familiar with in other people's gardens ... though I'd seen the name on some non-descript plants in the garden centers, I'd never really seen any blooming up close and had no idea what I was missing! About three years ago, in the dead of winter while we were lusting after the multitude of tempting flowers in the Park Seed catalogue we came across what looked like a winning variety, Gay Butterflies, so I decided to give this stuff a whirl and see what happened.

I planted them very early in the spring of 2005 and waited patiently for something, anything, to appear that year. Eventually there was a little patch of something that finally came up mid-summer, and since it didn't look like any of our typical pesky weeds (though it did look kind of "weedy"), I just let it go, figuring if it was the real thing, I'd see something the following year. The particular part of the bed that it shares with two Kniphofia plants, a Butterfly bush, some coreopsis and two hibiscus got overrun with weeds late in the summer and I pretty much just forgot it was there. Then last spring it reappeared and put on some height (at this point I was convinced it truly was Asclepias) before treating us to some tentative, small clusters of orange and yellow blooms through most of last summer. I do recall trying to get some good shots of it last year, but like what usually happens with me and Yarrow, they all came out blurry and I moved on to something else (probably hibiscus! lol). And finally, on a cloudy, humid Sunday with practically no sun showing, I managed to get a decent shot of this gorgeous stuff, which has truly put up a flowerhead measuring about six inches across! I'm looking forward to some really sunny days to work on this plant again in the hopes of capturing some of the absolute fire it projects even on cloudy days ...

Though the mix I planted is supposed to have red in it, we've only seen it bloom in orange and yellow, but I'm perfectly happy to see those, given my initial doubt as to whether it would ever establish itself successfully in the garden. At this point I think we can consider it established and even if it hasn't quite achieved the 24" in height it is supposed to reach we'll give it time to settle in some more and expand its territory a bit. It seems to play well with its nearest neighbors, the Kniphofias and looks really spectacular blooming alongside them. I'll have more pictures of the two together, most likely in my next post, so stop back again soon if you liked what you saw here!


olivia said...

Wow, great post IVG! Packed full of info and your experiences growing these ... They are really striking ... I'm not familiar w/ them, but recognize the lure of milkweed for butterflies and moths.

Definitely looking forward to seeing them along w/ the Kniphofias ... :)

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

Thanks for the compliment on the post Olivia... I actually learned quite a bit putting it together. Like I said, I knew nothing about them a few years ago, and this is purely one of those experiments I just have to undertake. As you know, we're all about providing food for the butterflies and bees, and when it comes in such a pretty package, it's just a bonus! I'm just glad it took hold and seems to be established for the long haul ...

Sorry no post tonight, I'm just not inspired and am very tired. The kniphofias will come very soon though... I just need to get a few more pics and then I might be satisfied, lol. It's not supposed to be so hot and humid today so maybe after work tonight I can get some more done and uploaded... stay tuned!